Review: AirPort Express (802.11n) Base Station
At a Glance
Like the original AirPort Express Base Station, released in 2004, Apple’s latest version is a Wi-Fi access point compact enough (3.6 by 2.9 by 1.1 inches, 6.7 ounces) to fit in a laptop bag and designed to plug directly into an electrical outlet. You can use the Express to create a wireless network of its own or to extend the range of a network provided by another Express or by an AirPort Extreme Base Station ( ; $179). Security options include WPA and WPA2 encryption—Personal and Enterprise versions—as well as the older WEP.
When providing its own network, the Express’s built-in Ethernet port lets you share a wired, broadband Internet connection—or extend an existing wired LAN—to wireless clients. When extending an existing wireless network, the Ethernet port can be used to connect non-wireless devices to the wireless network, directly or through an Ethernet hub or switch.
Using Profiles, you can save up to five groups of settings. These allow you, for example, to move an Express between your home, your office, and hotels without having to reconfigure settings each time; you simply choose the appropriate Profile and then restart the Express. Although this feature has recently been added to Extreme units, as well, it remains most useful here, thanks to the Express's portability.
Unlike the larger—and more expensive—AirPort Extreme Base Station, the Express doesn’t include a multi-port Ethernet switch, and its single Ethernet port is 100base-T rather than the Extreme’s faster 1000base-T (Gigabit) Ethernet. (Given the Express’s single port, the benefits of faster Ethernet would likely be realized only if several wired clients were connected, via a switch, to an Express extending an 802.11n-only wireless network.) The Express’s USB port is also less functional than its larger sibling’s: although it lets you share a USB printer across your network, it doesn’t support sharing a hard drive, as you can with the Extreme's AirDisk feature. (Although the latest documentation for the AirPort Express explicitly states that you can't connect multiple USB printers using a hub, Apple told us that you can indeed do this with the latest Express; however, the hub must be powered.) Finally, the Express supports only 10 clients; the Extreme handles up to 50.
On the other hand, a number of features previously found only in the 802.11n Extreme Base Station have found their way into the latest Express model. In addition to 802.11n support—which gives you better performance and range—the new Express inherits support for 802.11a networks, as well as PIN-based guest access, which allows you to keep your network password private, and time-based network access, which lets you limit the days and times at which particular computers can access your network.
The Express also continues to one-up the Extreme in a few areas. The Express’s AirTunes feature lets you stream iTunes audio—or, with help from the third-party AirFoil 3 ( ; $25), any other audio on your Mac—to a stereo or speakers connected to the Express’s analog/digital audio-out jack. Using multiple AirPort Express units, you can even stream audio, in sync, to multiple locations around your house. (However, since the Express has no controls, you’ll still need to control playback from your computer.)
The Express is also the first AirPort Base Station to provide a new feature called ProxySTA. In this mode, the Express acts as a wireless-to-Ethernet bridge, extending your wireless network to wired clients such as a TiVo, a game console, or a room of Ethernet-networked computers. However, unlike an Express configured as a remote or relay base station in a Wireless Distribution System (WDS), which shares or extends your wireless network to both wired and wireless clients, an Express set to ProxySTA does not extend or relay the network wirelessly; it acts only as a bridge. According to Apple, the benefits of ProxySTA are easier setup—the Express acts as a simple wireless client, so you don't have to configure a WDS network—and the potential for better wired-to-wireless performance, as ProxySTA avoids the network overhead of WDS and the potential interference involved with rebroadcasting a wireless signal. In addition, ProxySTA works with both Apple and third-party wireless access points.
Unfortunately, this feature isn’t documented and doesn’t appear by name anywhere in AirPort Utility. To activate ProxySTA, you must set up the Express to join a wireless network and then enable the Allow Ethernet Clients setting; both settings are located in the Wireless tab of AirPort Utility. The feature should work with any wireless network: a, b, g, or n; and 5GHz or 2.4GHz. (Note that the Express, which ships with firmware 7.3, must also be updated to firmware 7.3.1 for this feature to appear.)
The Express ships with AirPort Utility 5.3, which offers a considerably simpler setup procedure than previous versions. (Note that version 5.3.1 is already available for download.) The utility walks you through the most-common options, asking questions that are easy to understand and providing useful information to help you make informed decisions about settings. Those who need access to the Express’s more-advanced options—and there are more here than in the past, such as DHCP reservations for particular computers—can opt for Manual setup. The only potentially-confusing setup issue is that when you plug in a new Express to configure it, you may need to switch your Mac to the Express’s own network (which will be named something like “Apple Network 008de5”) before the Express will appear in AirPort Utility.
Hop on the N Express
In our testing, the Express offered performance and range that were considerable improvements over its predecessor. For example, wired-to-wireless throughput was approximately 85 Mbits/second, which is approaching the limit of the unit’s Ethernet port when you take network overhead into account.
Wireless-to-wireless performance was slower—and slower than that of the newest AirPort Extreme—although still much better than that of the older Express. In our initial testing of a 5GHz 802.11n-only network using the Automatic channel setting, typical throughput was around 33 Mbits/second. Manually switching to a better channel increased performance to around 39 Mbits/sec, compared to approximately 50 Mbits/sec in the same location for an 802.11n AirPort Extreme. Wireless-to-wired performance in ProxySTA mode in the same location averaged just over 26 Mbits/sec, although it occasionally reached over 35 Mbits/sec.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
If you don’t need the features unique to Apple’s AirPort Extreme Base Station, the new Express is an affordable and portable alternative, although one that doesn’t quite match the Extreme’s performance. It’s also the choice to make if you’re looking to extend your existing Apple-branded network wirelessly or to wired devices, to send your computer's audio to a remote stereo system, or to use a Base Station in more than one location. While not the least-expensive compact access point on the market, the AirPort Express offers more features, a more travel-friendly design, and easier setup than similar products from other vendors.
[Editor's note: Updated April 1, 2008 with details about ProxySTA; included new information from Apple about printers and USB hubs; corrected Profiles information to indicate that feature is available on newest Extreme modelsl.]